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Travelers grant allows Geller to fulfill mission of making lives safer

By Sally Harris

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 30 - May 1, 1997

A grant of $50,000 from The Travelers Insurance Company will enable Scott Geller to accomplish his new career mission: Get the word out.

For more than 25 years, Geller has been researching ways to make people safer and healthier, particularly on the roads and in the workplace. He pioneered the use of behavioral psychology to accomplish such things as increasing work-place safety and healthy-food selection and decreasing drunk driving and college-student alcohol abuse.

Through the resources available to him as a professor at Virginia Tech, he has done the research, learned the methods, and written the scholarly papers. He also is director of the Center for Applied Behavior Systems in the Department of Psychology at Virginia Tech, which conducts, analyzes, and documents prevention-focused research by undergraduate and graduate students. So he has the knowledge.

The remainder of his career, he said, will be devoted to getting the word out, to helping people become safer; and the Travelers grant is helping him do just that by allowing him to teach those who can teach others about safety and health promotion.

Travelers is particularly interested in Geller's behavior-based approach to preventing vehicle crashes and workplace injuries and in Geller's extensive work toward improving the health and safety of corporate employees world-wide. As part of the grant, Geller will give nine one-hour seminars in different parts of the country to Travelers personnel, who will then present the information to clients nation-wide, spreading the word farther and farther.

"This is just the beginning," Geller said. `We'll be doing seminars May through August. It's an opportunity to connect this material to the real world. They are hoping for 200 to 300 at each seminar."

Geller will present the program he developed on Actively Caring for Safety, which has been made into an audio-cassette series. The 12 30-minute programs follow the content of Geller's book The Psychology of Safety and teach the principles and procedures needed to achieve a total safety culture. The Psychology of Safety is for industry managers, to help them make the workplace safer. Geller also has written the book Working Safe for the general population. He also has a videotape program to disseminate his findings.

In his books, audio tapes, and videotapes, Geller emphasizes both behavior-based and person-based psychological approaches to attaining safety. He believes the workers must be involved in developing and carrying out safety programs, that using injury rate to measure safety success is a bad idea, that safety goals must be realistic and achievable, and that outside-dictated safety measures do not work.

But nothing works until it is taken to the people, and Geller believes in outreach, Virginia Tech's land-grant mission. During spring break, he will take his psychology of safety to locations throughout the country in a series of seminars for CareAmerica Compensation. He has taken his message to the people via CNN and Good Morning America, as well as radio programs. Psychology, he believes, must take its knowledge to the world; and he has done just that. Once, when another Virginia Tech professor was traveling in Australia and mentioned he was from Virginia Tech, someone said, "Oh, that's where the safety-belt guy is." Geller is the "safety-belt" guy who got television's tough man, Mr. T, to buckle up.

The Travelers grant will fund students to travel to conferences to give presentations and learn from the presentations of others, Geller said. For example, a group of mostly undergraduates will present papers at the Southeastern Psychological Association meeting in Atlanta on promoting safety in industry and on the road. In 1997 his students will attend six different conferences and make 60 presentations on topics ranging from low-fat food selection to decreasing alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking among adolescents.

"They (Travelers) wanted to fund the dissemination of our efforts," Geller said. "We've been doing this every year, but we can do more than ever with the Travelers grant."

Not only does this type presentation spread the word about safety findings, but the students benefit from the opportunity, Geller said. "Having undergraduates researching and giving a paper is a ticket to graduate school,'" he said. "It's like a thesis done as an undergraduate."

Geller has more than 50 undergraduate students doing research this year, with seven graduate students managing the projects and three full-time employees. "It's a pretty comprehensive outreach operation to collect data, find out things, and let the public know about it," he said.

In addition, Travelers has sent materials concerning its safety challenges for Geller's students to research. The topics include ways to measure safety. "That's usually been how many injuries they've had,'" Geller said. "That isn't diagnostic nor preventive. They want us to help prevent injuries."

Also, Travelers has a service-advertising and a teaching component and has asked Geller's group to give advice and provide its knowledge about ways to be of better service to its customers. "We're teaching their people and they're teaching others," Geller said.

"This university has given me the opportunity to learn," Geller said. "Now my mission is to get the word out."